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Originally published January 22, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 22, 2009 at 2:35 PM

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Whidbey Island's "Utopian" Freeland has Earth Sanctuary and thrift stores

Looking for a budget destination on Whidbey Island? Try Freeland, where homespun businesses offer visitors value for lean economic times.

Seattle Times travel writer

If you go

Freeland on Whidbey Island

Getting there

From Seattle, drive north on Interstate 5 and take Exit 189 to the Mukilteo-Clinton ferry. Distance is about 35 miles. (For ferry information, see www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries.) From the ferry dock in Clinton, drive 10 miles north on Highway 525 and turn right onto Scott Road at the large sign pointing to Freeland.

More information

Freeland Chamber of Commerce, 360-331-1980 or www.freeland-wa.org. Additional info from the Whidbey and Camano Island Tourism Committee: www.whidbeycamanoislands.com.

Video | Earth Sanctuary on Whidbey Island

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FREELAND, Whidbey Island — Ask for suggestions on where to go on Whidbey Island, and chances are someone will point you to the tourist hub of Langley, known for its art galleries, restaurants and water views, or Coupeville, a pioneer town that looks much the way it did in the 19th century.

But Freeland? I had to pull out a map to find this little community with a name that reaches back to its roots as a commune in the early 1900s, when its socialist founders formed the Free Land Association.

Their mission: to give away farmland with the idea of building a utopian society.

The experiment lasted about 15 years, but the name stuck. Not much is free here anymore, but neither will a visit blow the budget. Freeland exists more for locals than tourists, with homespun businesses offering old-fashioned value tailored to lean economic times.

Nestled between Holmes Harbor and Mutiny Bay about 10 miles north of the Clinton ferry dock, the community is home to a 72-acre nature preserve open to the public and a working glass-art studio.

Here's a plan for taking it all in on a day's outing:

9 a.m.

Catch an early boat

Whidbey is a popular tourist destination. Ferry lines can be long, especially on spring and summer weekends. Catch one of the early Mukilteo-Clinton ferries to avoid a long wait. Crossing time is about 20 minutes. Follow two-lane Highway 525 north past Langley, and turn right at a large sign that says "Freeland."

9:30 a.m.

Java jolt

Fuel up for the day on the outdoor patio or at a cozy booth inside Whidbey Coffee Company's Lighthouse Cafe, 1609 E. Main St.

Founded on the island in 1989, Whidbey Coffee (www.whidbeycoffee.com) bought Seattle's Victrola Coffee a while ago and now roasts its beans in Seattle. Try the Lighthouse Scramble: eggs, mushrooms, bell pepper, onion and ham topped with provolone cheese, for $5.95. Budget tip: Order the drip coffee, and feel free to take a cup to go when you leave.

10 a.m.

Celebrate peace

Get the new year started with a walk through the Earth Sanctuary (www.earthsanctuary.org), a 72-acre nature reserve and spiritual retreat center off Newman Road. It's open to the public every day, rain or shine, for self-guided tours ($7).

Shine is always better, of course, but it was pouring the day I met owner Chuck Pettis for a tour, and I still came away impressed with this new discovery. Pettis, 60, the owner of a Seattle advertising and marketing firm, is a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism. In 2000, using money from an investment in high-tech stock one of his clients gave him as a payment for his services, he bought a small house surrounded by forest to use as a retreat center.

The end result of years of work to restore the land's old-growth forest and wetlands is a landscape with hiking paths and ponds that provides a habitat for birds and waterfowl and natural settings for prayer and meditation. Scattered through the area are shrines, prayer wheels and stone sculptures.

"The whole idea was to create a place where people could feel peaceful," says Pettis. Maps at a box near the entrance point the way to naturalist areas and spiritual sites and artworks. Follow the Wetlands Trail for an easy hike to the Cottonwood Stone Circle, a 40-foot-diameter Scottish-inspired circle of 11-foot-tall columns surrounded by cottonwood trees.

11:30 a.m.

Art on the farm

From Earth Sanctuary, walk or drive across the street to 2062 E. Newman, where Robert Adamson, for years the owner of the Glass Eye studio in Seattle, runs Island Glass with his wife, Janis Swalwell.

Swalwell and Adamson, a former assistant director at Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood, make contemporary art glass in the refurbished barns of a 16-acre former chicken farm.

Visitors are invited into the furnace rooms for a close-up look at glassblowing in progress. A small shop is open Saturdays and Sundays or weekdays by appointment. Call 360-321-4439.

Drop by just to look, or leave with something as simple as a glass orange for $20, or as elegant as a lighting fixture that combines crackled glass with hand-forged metal.

12:30 p.m.

"Better Be Hungry"

When's the last time you found a restaurant with a bottle of wine priced under $20 or a whole dinner for $10?

"If I were arranging a rendezvous with someone from the north end of the island, and wanted a convenient place to meet in Freeland, I'd pick Gerry's Kitchen," my islander friend, Barb, advised when I asked her for a restaurant recommendation.

Arrive at lunchtime with an appetite and try the "Better Be Hungry" burger or the local Penn Cove steamed mussels with veggies and herbs.

The restaurant fills up fast in the evenings with locals gathered near the wood-burning stove. Owner Gerry Woolery started $10 nightly dinner specials a few months ago that include an entree, salad and dessert. House wine is $17 a bottle. 1675 Main St. Call 360-331-4818.

1:30 p.m.

Thrifty shopping

Go to Langley for fine jewelry and pottery crafted by island artists; come to Freeland for bargains on secondhand treasures.

Paw through the shelves at the WAIF Thrift Store at 1660 Roberta Ave. (www.waifanimals.org), and know that you're helping to feed or care for a homeless animal. Proceeds go to the Whidbey Animals Improvement Foundation. Purchases at Community Thrift, 5518 Woodard Ave., just north of Freeland on Highway 525, go to support senior services. See www.islandseniorservices.org.

Forty dealers sell antiques and collectibles in two Main Street antiques malls. I was tempted by a $10 English sandwich press at the Red Rooster Antique Mall, 1635 Main. A $22 mink hat from Denmark caught my eye at the Mutiny Bay Antique Mall, across the street at 1612 Main. See www.mutinybayantiques.com.

3 p.m.

Time for tea

There's just one table inside the Island Tea Company at 1664 E. Main, next door to the Second Chance thrift store. Owner Dori Hallberg describes it as "kind of like sitting at your girlfriend's kitchen table.

"If you come in and it's available, it's yours as long as you want to sit there."

Hallberg emphasizes that this is a tea shop, not a tea room, but if you're lucky enough to snag the solo table, the three-cup pot is a bargain at $2.50 for most any of the 90-100 teas in stock. See www.islandteacompany.com.

4 p.m.

Walk in the park

Don't leave the island without a walk along the water. Visit either Freeland Park at 1535 E. Shoreview Ave., at the south end of Holmes Harbor, or Double Bluff Beach, just south of Freeland at the end of Double Bluff Beach Road.

Kids will like the playground at Freeland Park, where there are picnic areas and easy walking trails. Locals like Double Bluff for its off-leash dog park and wide stretch of sandy beach good for seashell and rock collecting at low tide.

Carol Pucci: 206-464-3701 or cpucci@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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